Level 4, 10 Moore St, Canberra ACT 2601
+61 2 5123 6700

AFR Higher Education Summit – The Future Of Higher Education In Australia KEYNOTE ADDRESS: Future of Research Vicki Thomson, Chief Executive

August 28, 2019

It is a pleasure to speak to you about a subject I am described as being ‘evangelical’ about – namely the future of research.

I have just 20 minutes to convert those of you who, to date, have not seen the light.

How well I do this, is a challenge, when my being here is all that stands between you and lunch……….. but I will try.

I usually begin a speech saying that as Chief Executive I represent the Go8 – Australia’s leading research-intensive universities.

The subject matter means that today, I also represent far more:

I am speaking for the future of the Australian community, and the nation’s future standard of living and global relevance.

In fact, I am speaking for the future of Australia. Because when we’re talking about the future of research, we’re talking about nothing less.

And I am sure you are thinking “that’s a pretty big call”

So, let’s go through it.

I will crystallise the future of research into four points which I will leave on-screen to my side.

  1. Today Australia’s R&D, much of which is carried out in Go8 universities, is our economic foundation. It determines how well we live, and Australia’s economic capability, and global relevance.
    a. Nearly two-thirds of all university R&D is conducted by the Go8
  2. In the future, our quality research will continue to determine what we accomplish, Australia’s future economic growth, and global relevance in a fast-changing, complex and challenging geo-political climate.

    And three is a vital point:
  3. We forget at our peril that high quality research will continue within the world’s leading economies such as the US the EU and China regardless of Australia’s future commitment.
  4. The stark choice before us is therefore: be a global leader (by supporting and prioritising research), or a dependent follower (by not doing so). It is ours and ours alone to make.

We hear ad nauseum that Australia is dealing with an ever-more competitive global economy.

What that basically means, is that it can be difficult to hunt with the global pack leaders; yes, the US the EU and China.

….and to be included as a nation of relevance when you are but a small economy like Australia.

In this world where a nation’s research IP is a fiercely prized, extremely valuable commodity, Australia’s research strengths mean it has a lot of valuable IP – that should be used for Australian benefit;

— a nation of relevance is one judged to be a worthwhile partner; one invited to play in the tent with the big boys, such as the US and China, whose IP leads the world, and where China is fast-catching up with the US. In 2019 Australia moved into the top 10 countries based on the number of international research collaborations in the sciences – for the first time[1]

A nation of relevance is a nation that is invited to know what other top nations – such as the UK, Canada and Europe – are doing, and how they are doing it; a nation involved at a high level with emerging economic opportunities.

These economic opportunities are what help deliver our economic growth and an improved standard of living for every Australian, now and into the future.

Australia is responsible for how this future unfolds – in the tent, out of the tent. Growing economy, stagnating economy.

As it stands, unfortunately Australia currently lags behind all of its competitor nations in funding research. Worse, we lag behind the world.

Australia spends just 1.88 per cent of GDP on research and development. This is well behind the OECD average of 2.37 per cent.

The gap is now considered to be even more detrimental to us.

This makes no sense, given the positive and evidence-based effects, and return on investment of quality research.

  • For every $1 invested in Go8 university research an additional $10 is generated across the rest of the economy.
  • Each year Go8 research contributes $24.5 billion – $1000 for each Australian – into the economy.

I am talking here not only about what is discovered for advancement, but all the international partnerships, collaborations and high-level communications that derive from it;

…..and from the global flow of top researchers, in which the Go8 is a strong partner, and plays such a significant part.

I do get, that when it is put to an audience in those terms, it can sound like the basis of a sermon.

But we ignore at our peril the fact that research is so intrinsic to our lives, now and in the future, and I make no apology for being evangelical about that: restating it at every opportunity.

The problem is, that as a community we rarely think of research, or speak of it, in those terms.

As a result, in Australia, research has not received the respect, acknowledgement and accolades it deserves, nor the care and nurturing it needs to thrive.

We as a community take the value of research for granted, and because we do, Governments have felt safe that they also can, and without suffering electoral ramifications.

But, there does appear, perhaps, to be very recent light at the end of that tunnel, which may assist the future of research in Australia.

It has come about because of the current geo-political situation which I know everyone here is familiar with.

Now, with so much about the value and security of research and our IP, exercising the minds of everyone from researchers and media, to security agencies and our politicians, everything the Go8 has been preaching about its research value to the nation is being echoed back by Government. 

The China context as I refer to it, where nothing and everything is about China in 2019, has concentrated political minds.

And I am sure this informed audience is keen to better understand how this situation gels with the future of Australia’s research.

I would like to believe that one result of the current geopolitical angst would be increased research expenditure as a percentage of GDP e.g. 2.5% up from 1.88% of GDP. This would be driven by increased Government funding aimed at making us more self-reliant as a nation for our research funding.

That is perhaps still wistful thinking. But at least with Government now concentrating on this subject, there is some recognition of value.

As someone who is a glass half-full person, I am just grateful for any positive baby steps forward in research appreciation.

When discussing this funding aspect of the future of research and China, I always ask for calm minds and sensible words to prevail.

There must be facts.

There must be due consideration of those facts.

Education Minister Dan Tehan’s public comments last week reflect that stance and we are working collaboratively with relevant Ministers and security agencies on the subject.

And, of course, the overlay here is that, as the Minister says, we have been good financial managers. As such, we have found funding sources to support our research – including from our teaching income – and yes from our international students – who are also beneficiaries of studying in research intense  environments –  and the reason why is simple:

Government funding of Go8 universities has fallen over time to an all-time low of an average 35 per cent. That leaves us to find almost two-thirds of our funding ourselves.

The future of Go8 research, put crudely, does come down to funds. The Go8 is always frank that we do rely on funds not tied to research ($3.3 billion in 2016), largely from fees of those international students, to support Australia’s research discoveries.

But I must stress, the Go8 is not naïve. 

We know the value of what we research, and our discoveries, and we are working our way through that aspect with, as I mentioned, our security agencies, utilising those calm minds and sensible words.

Former DFAT secretary, now Chancellor of the University of Queensland, Peter Varghese AO is the epitome of calm minds and sensible words.

He is accurate with his recent public comments on research collaboration that there needs to be red lines set, and we operate within them. 

From the Go8 perspective, we are proud of the value to us, to Australia and to the world of our relationship with China as a research partner.

It is a partnership which goes back more than 50 years, as does our welcoming students from China.

We enjoy our Chinese students, and also over more than 50 years, they have become part of the Go8 fabric and family.

As it relates to nations attempting to exert influence on campus I again reference Peter Varghese.

I paraphrase his statement that all major powers attempt to exert influence and China is no different. It is worth noting that he is not singling China out, simply stating it does as others do. Peter Varghese would know.

And we have the Minister’s statement on Sky News last Wednesday (August 21) that he does not believe we are overcommitted in international student numbers. The Go8 agrees with that statement.

We plan for our international research collaborations to continue and to stay healthy.

Government is not suggesting we do anything but that.

Having set out the value of research to the nation I wanted to go to where it matters today – you.

I considered how best to bring the value of research home to you instantly.

It seemed asking you to “look all around you” was the simple solution.

Nothing in this room, or this building, or this city, would exist without the foundation of research, of discovery.

You travelled here by many different means – all of those were impacted by and developed from ongoing research; as was everything that comprises your homes.

 And nothing we are wearing would have been manufactured without the benefit of research.

None of the technology – think smartphones, laptops, earphones etc that we are using – would exist or update without continuous research.

Just imagine teenagers without their omnipresent screens or latest sneakers?

But I am positive they have never considered, or been taught, how they came to be developed!

And in all probability, given the size of today’s audience, we should probably reflect on the fact that some of us would not be alive today, or our children would not have survived, without the successes of Australia’s globally renowned medical research.

When you stop to think about all that, and then about 21st century research alone – think artificial intelligence, and 5G as examples – it can be overwhelming in its magnitude, and we are only 19 years in. 

It seems frankly unbelievable that at the start of this Century the world did not have access to GPS, social media or Youtube; had no idea there would be an artificial heart or a camera pill or sequencing of the human genome.

And it wasn’t all that long ago that fax machines were so comprehensively replaced at consumer level by emails.

That speed of change is directly related to constant massive research advances, even if they do so rarely manage to fit within one political cycle.

For all of those reasons, the invitation to speak on the future of research is an honour, because it is asking me to speak on how Australia values its position in the world.

Because research, so obviously, is an everyday basic need.

To make that point, let me take you back, by way of context, before I speak more about the future.

Australia is just 25 million people strong. That’s a very large piece of rock with not a lot of people.

Yet when it comes to research, even back in the 19th Century, as we learned at school, Australia was punching well above its research weight.

And we remain very much that clever innovative country, as we had to be, first to survive and then to develop.

Importantly we have always given the world advances for the global good.

I could list Australia’s research discoveries with immense pride for the total 20 minutes of my speech.

Here are just a few, sampled from all sectors, ones that make me stop and think “really, all of this, and all this diversification, and from our small population?”

And I am constrained, because I cannot list all the confidential cyber security and Defence, Space and AI discoveries, and even many of the medical discoveries the Go8 has been, and is, involved with.

So here goes….

In the 19th century, to name a few, Australia is credited with the first refrigerator; the underwater torpedo, electric drill, mechanical shearing clippers, and a plough that could jump over stumps and stones invaluably allowing much-needed new land to be cultivated across the nation.

In the 20th century,  it was university research which underpinned the discovery of killer T-cells as a key player in our immune systems, dark matter in spiral galaxies, precision agriculture and accurate planning of space missions, new water-efficient wheat varieties, the pacemaker,  the cochlear ‘bionic’ ear, the basis for modern anti-flu medication, and spray-on skin. Those alone come from Go8 people. From CSIRO and other innovators came wifi, the military tank, the rotary hoe, zinc cream, the ute, solar hot water, stainless steel teeth braces,  the black box recorder, ultrasound, the inflatable escape slide, the power board, the first xerox copier, the victa lawnmower, the dual flush toilet, frozen embryos for IVF,  both multifocal and plastic lenses, polymer banknotes, and the underwater PC.

In the 21st we have already discovered  Gardasil can rid the world of cervical cancer, how to get rid of cane toads, uncovered what really causes stomach ulcers and how to treat them, the nanopatch, the scramjet, electronic skin, the bionic eye, and 3D printed jet engines…

All Go8 affiliated research and innovations

What this timeline shows is that the drive for research and discovery – the ability to recognise problems and find ways to solve them – is part of our national DNA. It has been there for – almost literally – centuries, and there is no reason to think it won’t continue to be there in the future. It is a national asset that could not be better placed to steer us forward in a future that will increasingly be research and discovery led.

We are so effective. This tiny population has had a massive research footprint – largely dependent on university researchers. Two thirds of Australia’s researchers including post graduate students work in our universities (63%). Go8 institutions alone are responsible for almost half of the country’s research degree students.

It is something to be very proud of, and equally as protective of.

We must not be diverted from that by the geopolitics of 2019. 

In 2019 it is worthwhile also considering that, given the financial restraints our researchers work under; because international students fees do not, despite what you may have heard, ever translate into rivers of gold, we are fortunate to retain so many brilliant people willing to work here, researching, for the global good.

  • Michelle Simmons, pioneer researcher in quantum computing (UNSW)
  • Ian Frazer, who with Chinese researcher Jian Zhou, developed Gardasil (UQ)
  • Emma Johnson, world leading marine ecologist (UNSW)
  • Veena Sahajwalla, recycling scientist (UNSW)
  • Peter Doherty, who with Swiss researcher Rolf Zinkernagel, won a Nobel prize for discovering how the immune system recognises virus-infected cells (UniMelb)
  • Peter Singer, bioethicist (UniMelb)

You will note I keep saying global good. And I have made that point a number of times today especially when referencing the current geopolitical climate that we are negotiating our way through.

That is because, in the universities I represent – where again Australia punches well above its weight by having seven of the eight Go8 universities in the world’s top 100 universities – research definitely has never had borders.

Let me take you inside how that works, and you will see its acute relevance to the future of research which we are so committed to protect.

It is the nature of research discoveries that they are made by teams.

These teams can often comprise many nationalities.

They are led from within the Go8, or the Go8 contributes its best researchers to the labs of other countries, and yes that includes China.

These researchers are respected colleagues.

They are the best of the world’s best.

For exactly that reason, brilliant research will always continue – often with or without Australia.

Consider the first detection of a gravitational wave. This effort took 1,006 scientists working across 16 countries in 83 different institutions! Research for the discovery was done all over North America, Brazil, throughout Europe, Russia, India, China and South-East Asia – and Australia.

Some key research, such as facilitated by the Square Kilometre Array, may not happen without Australia.

As I stated at the start of my speech and with that vital point three up there to my side; the future of the world’s research is absolutely secure.

We have nothing to fear there.

What we must remain concerned about is how much does Australia intend to continue as a part of that, in terms of the future funding required to support it?

Because our great minds, our great researchers, are portable and all they want is to research and find answers, find solutions.

 So those amazing discoveries will still occur somewhere regardless of how an Australian Government sets its policy framework.

The future of research that I want to leave you being concerned about, is whether it can still occur here at the quality and to the effect it has done, or, will it occur more and more overseas.

Will we have all those brilliant minds here, or will they be forced overseas delivering invaluable IP for other nations, because they feel they have no choice.

Will they be in overseas universities with the labs – such as those amazing places I have seen emerge in China’s top universities in recent years – that can offer them the world’s best kit to work with;

Within universities which can afford to bring them on board and offer them the support teams around them they do actually need.

Basically, will Australia’s stream of quality research grow, or falter?

If it grows – then as a nation Australia will continue to be invited to play in the big tent.

Australia will continue to be seen as worthy of contributing, being listened to, and knowing what is happening in the labs of other vital nations, such as China and the US, the UK, Canada, Japan and Europe.

IP is, as I have already mentioned, global gold, a global currency of immense value.

Or, will we be reduced to a bit economic player, slipping down the slippery slope of that ever more competitive global economy?

The choice is ours.

It is always important to keep making that simple point.

The future of research for Australia is as much about do we keep it, and at the quality we currently are revered for – and speaking for the Go8, 99.9 percent of our research is assessed by the Government as being world class or above.

Or, do we let it slide, and become a nation without the invaluable IP that marks us as a respected leading global contributor, increasingly unable to attract even the level of expertise required to help us make use of discoveries made elsewhere, without us?

Vitally, will we be without much of that valuable IP because we will have little access to the IP being developed by major powers when we are not in research collaborations with them?

It is, as I keep reiterating, Australia’s choice.

To conclude – let me make the point that it has always been that research needs money, a fact not lost to those researching in the AI space in Australia – the latest race for supremacy where Australian funding has been miserly.

Hungarian biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi who won a 1937 Nobel Prize said that “research was four things – brains with which to think, eyes with which to see, machines with which to measure and fourth: money”.

Bill Gates, who needs no introduction, has said more than once that he believes in innovation and that to quote “the way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts”.

In 2015 a policy paper for the European Commission “The value of research” by its Research, Innovation and Science Policy Experts stated that “there is overwhelming evidence from multiple sources to justify research as one of the best investments that can be made with public (and private) funds. Rates of return are in the order of 20 to 50 per cent.”

And then there is our own research, conducted by London Economics and referred to earlier, which showed that $1 spent on Go8 research is returned tenfold to the national economy.

Interestingly, given my earlier comments, the paper also questioned why some research resources had been constrained or cut as a consequence of austerity. It stated that one answer could be, to quote “the benefits of research are perceived to be long term, and hence expenditure is less likely to have effects on jobs and growth in the current political cycle”.

Australia’s funding commitment for university research has been undermined over decades. This did not start with the Morrison or even the Abbott Governments. It has been endemic.

Funding from the Australian Research Council for instance has dropped by 20 per cent in real terms since 2011-12.

Lack of funding is draining for our research teams.

So I am asking you to spread the research gospel.

To please help secure Australia’s research future.

In fact, to help secure Australia’s future, full stop!

Funding research is an investment not a cost.

Its returns cannot be denied nor contested.

And universities cannot continue to do more with less.

Universities will always be the main research provider in Australia because as a nation we simply do not have the major companies who undertake research overseas.

Some 97 per cent of Australia’s industry base is made up of SMEs.

There are so many elements to this issue of the future of research, as you have seen from this speech.

There is a lot to consider.

Please consider what it means for you, your family, and your future standard of living and health next time you note a funding cut for universities.

Because that cut or constraint goes way beyond universities.  It goes directly to the future of research.

[1] Source: Nature